Leading up to last week’s pilot episode of “Black Box” on ABC, I’d seen a bunch of previews for the drama centered around Dr. Catherine Black, a talented neuroscientist harboring a secret diagnosis of her own. The series premiere aired right after “Grey’s Anatomy,” which I had been watching, so I decided to give it a whirl.
Commercials for the show revealed that Catherine struggles from and conceals a serious mental disorder, which we soon learn is bipolar disorder, or manic depression. As a woman with a sibling who is bipolar, I was automatically intrigued and hoping that maybe, despite all of the research I’ve done on manic depression and living through personal experience, the show would help me to understand more about what it’s like to live life with bipolar disorder. While my sister is currently stable and on medication, I’ve been there during many of her terrible manic depressive episodes. I’m all too familiar with the rage, hallucinations, uncontrollable sobbing, violence and nearly-successful suicide attempts. Thankfully, my sister’s multiple attempts at swallowing bottles of pills and jumping off of the roof of our house were unsuccessful, but the effects of her doing so are long-lasting and traumatic for those who’ve had to watch a loved one suffer so badly. While I have no idea what it’s like to live with a disorder that dislocates you from reality, bringing a usually happy person into deep dark depths of despair at the drop of a dime, I have dealt with it secondhand and it’s awful. I had that in the back of my mind as I watched.
On “Black Box,” Catherine lives by a personal “non-compliance” philosophy. She believes that some of the world’s greatest minds (Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway to name a few), whom all happened to have various mental illnesses, did their best work when they were in the midst of their manic states. Their genius reached full potential when there was no medication dulling their elaborate, mind-freeing hallucinations, which ultimately led to beautiful works of art. And while most of those great minds accomplished legendary things, it was the same illnesses that contributed to their out-of-the-box thinking that also led to their eventual suicides. With that said, Catherine feels most brilliant diagnosing and curing mental illnesses and brain disorders when she’s off jer meds. So, naturally, we watch her intentionally dump her pills down the toilet and unravel. And when Catherine unraveled, so did I.
We watched this brilliant, seemingly normal woman flip a switch and enter an exaggerated, yet still frightening fantasy world where she twirled around, viscously jotted notes down on her arms, undressed the first man she saw and nearly killed herself when she thought she was flying over the city— in reality, she was dancing on the ledge of her hotel balcony. While I watched, I had flashbacks of my sister’s manic episodes, which still linger in the back of my mind, returning in the form of nightmares every single time my sister’s bipolar disorder rears its ugly head. Even when my sister is at her healthiest, I live in fear that one day the illness will become too intense and we’ll lose her in some terrible, tragic way without any way of helping. After Catherine exits her incredibly disturbing manic state, she returns to “normalcy,” continuing to lie to everyone in her life about her illness and forgoing medication with the fear of becoming “mediocre.” She makes all of these conscious, terrible decisions despite having watched her own mother commit suicide from the same disorder when she was a child. I felt suffocated. Uncomfortable.
At this point in the episode, I had such a terrible gut reaction that I needed to turn the show off. Dealing with a loved one who’s enduring such an illness takes a toll on everyone around them. Oftentimes, they will say or do things in their out-of-mind, out-of-body experience that can scar their friends and family for years, similar to post-traumatic stress. Watching this woman’s manic episode brought me to that point. It was a difficult thing to watch, and an even more difficult thing to try and comprehend actually happening to someone that you love. But worst of all, at no time during the show did any characters say anything of value or comfort about the stigma of mental illness. Instead, I felt it almost read as a promotion for medicinal non-compliance. Don’t take your meds and you can achieve greatness! I don’t think so.
While the premise of the show is certainly interesting and Catherine’s character is compelling to watch, to anyone who’s dealt with bipolar disorder first or second-hand, I would avoid “Black Box.” Perhaps my visceral reaction is a testament to the show’s power and truth. Maybe ABC is achieving exactly what they hope to achieve by giving viewers an inside look at the struggles of mental illness. But as those of us who already deal with mental illness know, sometimes reliving the pain is the worst part. I’ll be skipping this one.